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On Classical Elements

April 5, 2012

As far as western esoterists – or really, any western person – are concerned, only four “elements” exist: air, earth, fire and water. Many people keep making justifications for their presence in media and spirituality, that they represent the four basic organic elements (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen), or the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma/energy), and thus only four are used.

However, in the original context in which elements are used, they aren’t mere building blocks for matter: they are natural and spiritual forces. Fire isn’t just brilliant and hot gas or plasma, it’s a representation of life itself, of passions, of purification, of the Summer. Elements are seen as magickal forces, if not the building blocks for magick as much as they are to the physical universe.

In that light, the modern esoteric perspective of classical elements is therefore woefully misguided. The most obvious mistakes are the interpretations of the elements themselves: plants, for example, are somehow seen as earthly, even though the only bias towards earth is them growing in there, and actually they are equally related to water and even air/fire (as light), while moten earth in magma is somehow seen as fire, when the whole basis of the element is not just heat, but grace and lightness, qualities not seen in molten earth at all.

However, the most important mistake is simplification. We think of four elemnts, yet there are consistently five. Modern esoterists think of the fifth as Spirit or something, but ALL elements in themselves have a spiritual aspect. Historically, this fifth element was consistently a force of nature at the same level as the others, every bit as part of the material realm as fire or air. The greeks and babylonians thought of it as the aether, the luminous sky so inaccessible to us, yet still real, not an abstract spirit; the native americans thought of lightning likewise. And with this we are brought to Wu Xing, the chinese system, which incorporates Metal as the fifth element.

Overall, I think that, of these systems, the elemental arrangement of Wu Xing is the one that makes more sense. It deals with the natural/spiritual nature of magickal elements far more effectively than any other system, showing the transitional nature of matter and spirit, changing with form and the seasons, as well as one’s very own personality.

In Wu Xing, the elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Do note that, in chinese thought, wind is associated with plants, and indeed n the context of Wu Xing, Wood can easily be replaced by Air. Both share the same natural position (Wood is born from Water and feeds Fire; Air is evaporated from Water and feeds Fire), both are associated with Springtime, and both lord over the same mental aspects (ambition, communication, impatience, et cetera). Both are also Yang energy, masculine in aspect and thus associated with light (both govern over the eyes and plants grow with sunlight, after all). So, overall, for those less willing to have Wood as an elemental force, Air is still an option.

A larger deviation is the presence of Metal. In western esoterism, Metal is usually part of the Earth, even though there are metals for each element and planet. Likewise, Metal as a whole is quite distinct from Earth both in symbolic role and actual elemental materials. Whereas Earth is nourishing and damp, Metal is sterile and refined; whereas Earth is dark, creating caves, Metal is light, being aligned with the electromagnetic spectrum (indeed, in Wu Xing Metal is associated with eletricity [thus earning syncretism with the native american element Lightning], stars and the colour White). Metal also assimilates some characteristics of Air, namely the connection with the planet Venus and the association with the circle, as well as the association with Autmn (in the japanese system, Earth replaces Wood and Air replaces Metal, rendering the connection of Earth with Spring and of Air with Autmn as seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is frankly stupid because it is clearly quite forced and ignorant of the qualities of the elements).

It’s worth to note that Wu Xing sees Earth as the elemental quintessence, and this isn’t quite far off actually. The elements follow the same quality patterns as Aristotle laid out: Air/Wood is Warm and Moist, Fire is Warm and Dry, Metal and Dry and Cold and Water is Cold and Moist (he, of course, used Earth instead of Metal), while Earth is both Moist and Dry, Warm and Cold. The cycle of seasons is akin to the western cycle, only that Water stands for Winter instead of Autumn, which is ruled by Metal instead, and Earth rules the space between seasons; all elements have their origins on Earth, hence Earth encapsulates all.

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